"Ride Recumbent, Ride!"
by Vic Sussman
That is the reaction of most people when I tell them I ride a recumbent bicycle. Or they nod sagely and say, "Oh yes, my gym has one of those," visualizing me pedaling a stationary exercise bike. Then I explain that I ride a recumbent on the road, which confuses them even more. "it's a laid-back bicycle with a chair-like seat," I explain, "and I ride it because its fun, fast, and supremely comfortable." A comfortable bicycle? How radical!
Of course, when folks actually see me riding the ride, their reactions are even stronger. My first recumbent bike, for example, was the beautifully constructed Ryan Recumbent. I only had one complaint about it: Every time I braked to a stop, I drew a crowd. Kids and adults swarmed around the lipstick-red, seven-foot-long machine, firing questions. Is it hard to ride? Is it fun? And, hey, where are the handlebars? I answered No. Yes. Under the seat. ``What a cool bike!'' they murmured. ``What a weird bike!''
The gawkers were right. Recumbents are bizarre, but only because conventional bicycles are so...conventional. If a time-traveler happened to zoom from 1885 back to the future of 1997, he would instantly recognize standard bicycles, so little has their diamond frame geometry changed.
What has changed significantly over the years is bicycle ownership. Americans buy more than 10 million bikes a year for recreation and fitness, about three times more than a few decades ago. Yet these numbers are deceptive. Many adults love the idea of bike riding more than the actual riding.
The Bicycle Institute of America estimates that of the more than 110 million bicycles in the U.S., about 20 million are gathering dust. And rust. Some kids' bikes are corroding in garages, but millions more bicycles have been abandoned by adults. One reason is painfully obvious. Perching on that torture device called a bike saddle hurts. (My theory is that bike seats were invented by a sadistic proctologist.) The longer the ride, the worse the effect of gravity and the pounding vibrations of road-shock. Straddling a bike seat can chafe, rub open saddle sores and cause genital numbness. More than just uncomfortable, severe genital numbness can lead to temporary male impotence and infections in women.
Even the most gonzo riders suffer, says Bicycling magazine. Sixty-two percent of readers responding to the magazine's ``Sex Survey'' admitted to genital numbness. But 96 percent said they'd keep riding anyway, proving that more than their private parts were numb.
Bike magazine medical columns typically describe other ailments, an orthopedist's gold mine of sore arms, backs, shoulders, necks and hands. To ease this misery, the experts drone on about making sure the bike fits your body, wearing padded gloves, getting a padded seat, a gel seat, gel gloves, gel implants, and blah, blah. If this fails, well, you'll get used to it. You'll toughen up.
I believed this garbage for years. I pedaled a succession of spindly 10-speeds and owned a mountain bike I could have ridden up the side of a barn. It was fun, but I hurt. I consulted cycle experts, readjusted the handlebar and seat height, changed bike seats and wore crotch-padded biker's shorts. Still, going for long rides on my neuter scooter left me numb in all the wrong places. And worried. I finally quit busting my buns in 1989, when I first rode a recumbent.
That's a clunky word to hang on a streamlined bike, but recumbent accurately describes the semi-reclining riding position. Recumbenteers sit comfortably, their backs and bottoms supported in chair-like seats. They lean back and pedal with their legs extended in front of them. Some recumbents, like the Tour Easy, have ``easy rider'' or ``ape hanger'' handlebars, others--like the Ryan, feature handlebars under the seat.
What bliss! The bikes look wacky to the hopelessly conventional, but they feel great. Never numb, sore or stiff, my body and hands stay relaxed as I pedal for hours. At the end of a 30-mile ride, my companions riding standard bicycles limp about groaning, shaking out their legs and rubbing their aching necks, shoulders and derrieres. I continue to sit on my bike-cum-recliner, as comfortable as I was at the journey's start.
Riding a recumbent is also safe. Jam on the front brakes and the long wheelbase bikes won't lurch forward, catapulting you into space. At worst, you will fall sideways instead of flying solo, head-over-heels over handlebars. And the rider's view of the road is wide, virtually panoramic. Ride a conventional bike and you spend a lot of time hunched over, staring down at your front wheel.
Despite their benefits, recumbents and other radically different bike designs are still rare, unfairly so. Almost 60 years ago, the bureaucrats who ruled bicycling decided that a recumbent wasn't a ``real'' bicycle. In 1934, the Union Cycliste International (UCI), Europe's stuffy, high priesthood of bicycle racing, forever barred recumbents from world-wide competition after a recumbent rider smashed a 20-year-old speed record. The UCI declared la bicyclette a pedalage horizontal ``unfair competition,'' legislating it into obscurity. (They could have put it into a separate category for recumbents, but that might have encouraged its development. Heaven forbid.) In fact, every human-powered vehicle land speed record is still held by a recumbent design.
The UCI ruling discouraged most bicycle innovation for nearly 30 years. Too bad. Many people, especially aging boomers leery of standard bikes, care more about riding in comfort than they do about winning races. But the conservative bicycling industry--influenced by the prejudices of the wind-in-your-hair-bugs-in-your-teeth racing crowd--keeps peddling the same old line instead of producing imaginative designs that could get more people riding bikes.
Of course, we recumbent aficianados admit to some disadvantages. The long wheelbase models are hard to transport (Ive used a car top tandem bike rack or a rear rack), and they are initially tougher to pedal up steep hills until you build up your thigh and hamstring muscles. (Many short wheelbase bikes will fit in a car, however, and some climb like mountain goats.) All recumbents are made by small companies, so they are pricier than mass-produced bikes. The Ryan now sells for $1895; the Gold Rush Replica, my present bent, goes for $2995. These are not outrageous prices for custom-made bikes, but more than youll pay for a mass produced upright bike. Other recumbents start at $500, and used ones are always available. For more information see the Recumbent cyclists Buying Guide, the best--actually, the ONLY reliable source of overall information on bents.
I rode my "weird" Ryan Recumbent happily for many years, taking the shouted huzzahs and curious questions in stride. Later, seeking a change, I moved on to a short wheelbase CounterPoint Presto, then back to a slick Gold Rush Replica, the super-fast bike of my dreams. Recumbents are slowly attracting more interest these days, thanks in part to an aging population that wants to exercise without hurting. In fact, there are signs that my "niche bike" may be going mainstream. Bicycling magazine, usually more focused on racing and riding technique, recently devoted a long, glowing article to the many benefits of getting bent.
So these days, when I ride 25 miles on Saturday mornings with my non-club riding group, the serenely anarchic and enthusiastic members of WHIRL (Washington's Happily Independent Recumbent Lovers) I know we're not really riding bicycles at all. We're riding metaphors. We're riding symbols and icons and portents of the future. Our sleek, laid-back machines are really smoldering fuses in the bicycle revolution waiting to happen.
Copyright 1997 by Vic Sussman. May not be reproduced or distributed without written permission.
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